Better cow tracks will not only
improve foot health but can:
- Improve udder hygiene (and potentially somatic cell count and
- Improve cow flow (and reduce herding time,herdperson's stress
and cow stress)
- Extend grazing season (through better field access in wet
- Reduce field poaching (and reduce adverse environmental
Whilst the best walking surface for cows is probably dry
pasture, pasture will not withstand persistent use by groups of
milking cows, especially in wet weather. Therefore, most herds with
over 50 cows using pasture grazing will need cow tracks. A good cow
track does not need to be expensive. This bulletin reviews some of
the cost effective options for cow track construction, as well as
ways to herd cows to minimise general lameness.
Fig 1: Most large herds using pasture grazing will
need cow tracks.
Cow herding behaviour
Fig 2: Cattle prefer to move in groups, often
in single file, at a brisk human walking pace.
Cattle are herd animals and prefer to move in hierarchical
groups, often in single file. Over uneven terrain, cows will lower
their heads to inspect the walking surface. They place their front
feet carefully, avoiding stones or hazards, normally placing the
hind feet in the position vacated by the front feet (tracking up).
Hurried herding prevents tracking up, increasing stone
injuries and claw wear. Lameness reduces a cow's ability to track
up, increasing the risk of further injury. Mud and water will
also prevent cows seeing and avoiding stones. If a cow at the front
stops, then the cows behind invariably stop. They then consider
walking around the obstructing cow if the track is wide enough and
if they perceive it safe to do so.
The cost-benefit of a cow track is extremely difficult to
calculate. The biggest cost is the material required to construct
the track which may be available free from on farm a demolition
firm. The benefit should be calculated in terms of the number of
months of grazing that can be gained at the start and end of the
summer, with saving of conserved forages and housing costs such as
bedding. However, perhaps the biggest benefit is in terms of
general herd health through having complete control over when cows
can be turned out and housed, avoiding sudden dietary changes.
Improved foot health, udder health and labour savings are clearly
Principles of constructing a new cow track
If new cow tracks are being constructed then it is worth
locating a cheap source of stone/rubble as a base. Alternatively
the subsoil may be suitable, allowing the 'up-and-over' approach
(Fig 3) or stone me be quarried on farm. Concrete railway sleepers
may be a cost-effective option depending on availability. The track
should run the shortest route (A-to-B) to save materials and
minimise distances for cows to walk. It should be wide enough for
cows to drift and overtake each other. You may get away with 2.4m
wide tracks far from the dairy but most tracks will need to be
>5m wide and 6.5m may be expected close to the dairy for large
groups(1) or at typical bottle necks like turns and junctions.
Fig 3: The 'up-and-over' involves digging up
subsoil from next to the intended track, moving it over and onto
the new track and back filling the
Creating drainage to shed water
This is best achieved by:
(1) Raising a track at least 0.5m above the
surrounding ground with stone or rubble (for a new track, stone can
be laid directly on the topsoil). 8-12" stone/rubble should be used
first, with layers of finer stone/rubble (3-4") on top. (Fig 4)
(2) Creating ditches
(3) Removing barriers to wind or sun drying.
(4) Creating a camber (maximum 5%)
Fig 4: Investing effort in preparing a raised base
will improve drainage. Some 'sinking' should be anticipated and an
'over-camber' is rarely the main concern.
Compaction of stone/rubble to shed water
Heavy roller compaction (70 tonne vibrating roller) will help
the stone track bind and shed water, thereby resisting erosion.
This will ensure the track lasts longer. It will also reduce the
unevenness that results in water pooling and reduces protrusion of
stones that damage claws.
Fig 5: Oolitic limestone is a durable soft stone,
that compacts well and offers excellent cow grip. Unsuitable for
heavy vehicle use or high rainfall areas.
Cow-friendly surface material
The most important part to constructing a cow
track is the material used as the top finish. While this can be the
same material used for the base, the top layer needs to be cow
friendly. This means if it is stone then it must not puncture claws
or cause damage to the interdigital skin. The following materials
can be used:
- Reclaimed astroturf - usually available free of charge and
therefore probably the safest and cheapest option. Heavy to fit and
there is uncertainty about how to dispose of it at the end of its
- Ooliti limestone (Fig 5) - laid with a vibrating roller in 2
inch layers the day after wet weather i.e. damp material dry
- Sandstone - similar to oolitic limestone.
- Chalk - added sand will reduce slipperiness in wet weather.
This can be stabilised with cement.
- Wood chip - good drainage essential by building up a stone (or
concrete sleeper) base. Often available free of charge.
- Pine peelings - like woodchip, good drainage essential.
Excellent cow comfort.
- Crushed stone or rubble - commercial crushers can be
contracted-in. The stone can be stabilised with cement. Rubble must
have metal extracted.
- Shellet - a clay subsoil. It has a tendency to turn muddy in
wet weather. Therefore it is better if cement-stabilised.
- Stabilised soil - cement mixed with soil. Not widely used but a
potential solution where stone is unavailable. Contractor costs may
make this solution uneconomic.
- Stone dust - various products may be available from local
quarries. Avoid this for sections close to concrete yards. This
surface can be abrasive and can result in stone penetrations.
Adding clay (15%) to stone can be an alternative means of
stabilising surface layers.
An annual cost in terms of repairs should be expected with all
these materials, although in reality the stone materials often last
2-3 years without attention. The life is determined by the vehicles
that use it and ideally no vehicles should use it. Posts set in the
middle of track entrances can prevent accidental use by tractor
drivers. If a dual purpose track is needed, see next section.
Attention should be paid to all sections of track as a neglected
10m section can cause the majority of the problems
Fig 6: Astroturf - a recycled product now readily
available for no or little cost. Hockey pitch astroturf is most
popular for cow tracks, filled with sand which can be topped up.
Artificial grass (in picture, right) filled with fine rubber
particles is relatively new but appears
Concrete and tarmac
If well managed concrete or tarmac can make extremely useful
tractor and cow tracks for short (<400m) sections.
These surfaces are hard and abrasive and can make cows vulnerable
to stone penetrations. Therefore they must be swept regularly (e.g.
weekly). However, quarry belting (only on level stretches) or
astroturf can reduce the problems associated with cows walking long
distances on these surfaces.
Other tracked related problems and solutions
(1) Gateways and water troughs - following the above
principles appears to be important, with a focus on drainage.
Moving, rotating or widening gateways are the best solutions to
(2) Rain-washed tracks - generally these require
resurfacing prior to use, or rolling with a heavy roller to
re-create surface 'fines'. On slopes rain diverts set at regular
intervals helps channel water off tracks and into ditches.
(3) Holding areas next to roads - concrete is
usually the only suitable materials for these areas which should be
scraped and brushed regularly.
(4) Junctions between concrete and stone - raising
the stone track above the concrete should help water drain off
tracks onto concrete, rather than the opposite direction which
causes erosioin and pooling. A low nib wall can divert the water if
this is not possible or alternatively a piece of 4x2 timbewr fixed
with a dynabolt onto the concrete. Laslty, a soft stone or organic
material junction can help kjnock off and 'absorb' hard stones.
(5) Crossing a stretch of "chippings" track -
astroturf, old carpet or quarry belting can be used. (Fig6)
Even with perfect tracks, claw condition may make cows
vulnerable to sole punctures. The cause of thin soles should be
investigated and may relate to preventable factors like abrasive
tracks, increased distances walked or increased pushing in a
collecting yard. . Lame cows fail to track up well, meaning hind
feet cannot fall where the front feet left off. This makes lame
cows more prone to treading on stones. Routine trimming 4-8 weeks
prior to turnout may help as will proactive use of blocks. Sole
thickness should be preserved at routine foot checks and trimming
to minimise 'turn-out tenderness'.
Cows will move more quickly on a cow-friendly cow track,
lowering the risk of lameness due to sole punctures. None-the-less,
it is still essential for the stockperson to allow cows to drift
along in their own time as cows will tread on stones if rushed.
Retiring the dog, disabling the quad bike horn and have gate
latches on a remot time ares some of the ideas that help achieve
Constructing a cow track requires considerable forward planning.
If local materials can be sourced then the costs need not be high
compared with the potential savings. Where the costs of cow tracks
cannot be justified, then increased reliance on housing, woodchip
paddocks or breeding for a robust cow may be the only